The tension between the economy and the people has never been quite as intense as it is now. I hear all sorts of explanations, and speculations as to why many people are not returning to low-wage jobs where they must confront the public—especially in the restaurant and hospitality industries. Even hiring bonuses don’t seem to have much effect. Most often cited is that they are too lazy to work at a low-wage hard-work job when they can collect unemployment with a COVID-19 bonus.
That, of course, is not surprising. If the job paid a living wage and there were no pandemic, many who have not returned to work probably would be at work now. We all want work that is meaningful, pays well enough to live beyond hand-to-mouth, and maybe even offers some opportunity for creativity and agency. Unfortunately, jobs with any or all of those felicitous characteristics are increasingly rare. Most low-pay jobs yield low satisfaction as well.
This fundamental flaw is in the very DNA of the contrived economy we accept as natural, but is not. High-skill challenging jobs usually have some component of creativity or interest; they are scarce, workers are not. We live in an economy that was created and is controlled by those who take great care to make it pay handsomely for them; they expect the rest of us to make it on our own while they retain all sorts of privileges for themselves.
So, the difficulty employers have had in filling front-line jobs as the economy began opening up while the COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates decreased, got me thinking about some rumors I’ve been hearing about workers re-thinking their lives and their work.
Dilemmas of Life and Work
Life is short, I can assure you of that. Some recommend that we “eat desert first,” since we could all die before the main course. I know of too many cases where, in contrast to that hedonist immediacy, a guy worked as a machinist (or other skilled blue or white collar job) for 35 or 40 years, then retired with a comfortable pension. Having known nothing else but their job, such folks often die within a year or two depending on a number of other factors. For too many, the job becomes one’s entire identity rather than an element in an otherwise complete social life. Remember, the happiest people in the world, who live longer than most, are fully engaged with family, friends, and interesting activities.
It is instructive to note that the social security system was designed with the assumption that beneficiaries would not live more than a very few years after retirement. That, of course, is no longer the case.
Contemplating Alternatives to the Rat Race
When Karl Polanyi, the great economic historian, wrote in 1944 that the industrial revolution was a “great transformation” of society, he worried that the breakup of traditional social relations by industrialization had caused a great deal of dysfunctions and suffering in societies.
A great deal of social displacement accompanied industrialization, along with the growth of great wealth. The so-called “trickle down” theory of progress never quite worked beyond a limited degree. Various social welfare programs never quite compensated for the fact that so many people “fell through the cracks” in a system touted to be the ultimate and inevitable form of human progress.
Some twenty years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote called Nickeled and Dimed, based on her living as a low-wage worker in the marginal economy where income I insufficient. To really get life at the bottom, she deprived herself of her normal middle-class resources. She found hard-working people struggling against often-impossible odds, trading off rent and medicine against food to eat. Things have only gotten worse. Unemployment benefits were not as good then or after as in the brief period when enhanced by the federal pandemic unemployment supplement that recently expired.
I am not at all surprised that a good number of people are re-thinking their lives in whole, as a result of being laid off from jobs that provided for less than their minimum needs while giving little in the way of personal satisfaction. Even where the pay is adequate, do we work to live or live to work? The pandemic brought that into focus for many folks.
But it is not just that some jobs are menial or take a great deal of effort. I’ve worked enough at unskilled labor—fortunately mostly in my youth—to know that hard work can be quite tolerable if you need the money and take a good attitude toward physical labor. But a life of permanent wage-slavery is not something to look forward to with cheerful anticipation. Nor is a job that provides adequate or even a lot of money, but unending stress and dissatisfaction. Both raise the question, what is the good life and how can I achieve it?